You’re in the home stretch of your marathon. Less than two miles to go and you’re giving your all, mustering every last bit of energy for that final kick. Suddenly, instead of savoring the cheers of spectators lining the finish chute, you’re stopped dead in your tracks, your quads clenched in horrific pain. The reason: muscle cramps.
Not all muscle cramps are quite so dramatic. Some occur if you sit too long in the same position. Your feet or toes might cramp while you’re swimming. You may experience abdominal muscle cramps while working out, commonly referred to as “side stitch.” Muscle cramps can even hit at night, while you’re lying in bed on the brink of sleep.
What causes muscle cramps, especially during athletics, is uncertain. Most experts agree that dehydration and electrolyte imbalances are likely culprits, but studies (like this one and this one) show that the causes are still unknown. Ask any endurance athlete, and they’ll tell you that muscle cramps occur for one of two reasons: either your electrolyte balance is off (i.e. dehydration) or you’re trying to go too far or too fast, without adequate fitness.
Whether scientific or anecdotal, one thing’s for sure. Muscle cramps can derail anything from a daily workout to a long-sought-after athletic dream. Learning how to prevent muscle cramps is your best defense. And if they do strike, various muscle cramps remedies may help.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps
The science isn’t certain as to the cause of athletic muscle cramps, and therefore neither is the cure. But there are a number of preventative measures and muscle cramps remedies you can try when and if they hit. Think of this as a mix of common sense, anecdotal evidence, and tried and true muscle cramps treatments—and give them your best shot.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
During exercise, you need to hydrate. And we’re not talking water alone. Your fluid intake should include a sports drink with electrolytes to replace what you lose as you sweat. Many endurance athletes also supplement with salt capsules or tablets to prevent cramping during long and/or hot training sessions and races. Some swimmers swear by drinking pickle juice as a means to prevent dehydration and cramping.
Don’t forget to hydrate before and after exercise, as well. Drink plenty of fluids during the course of each day so that your muscles stay hydrated and healthy around the clock. Keep a bottle like the BlenderBottle® SportMixer® close at hand as a constant reminder to drink up.
When Side Stitch Strikes
Side stitch isn’t always caused by the same thing. It can be a stomach cramp caused by running too soon after eating or drinking (or eating/drinking too much during your run). Side stitch can also be caused cramping of the diaphragm—the main muscle involved in breathing. To remedy a diaphragm-related side stitch cramp, try the following:
- Slow down your breathing as you run. Runners tend to take fast, shallow breaths, which can contribute to cramping. Instead, try taking deep, slow breaths and exhaling deliberately through pursed lips until the cramp subsides.
- While running, raise the arm on the same side of your body as the cramp and put that hand behind your head. This stretches out the diaphragm and may be enough to ease the cramp as you continue to run.
- If neither of these tactics work, stop running and stretch the cramping side by reaching your arm overhead and bending your torso to the opposite side.
- You can also try walking until the cramp calms down and you can run again.
Stretch it Out
Stretching can serve as a muscle cramps treatment for many sports-related cramps. When a muscle cramps, it tightens up—sometimes fiercely. You may need to use your hands to help unfurl the cramped muscles (for example, the muscles in your feet and toes). You can also use whatever’s at hand to help relieve your muscle cramps. A sidewalk curb or a stair can be a lifesaver when you need somewhere to brace yourself to stretch out a cramping calf or hamstring muscle. If your lower back muscles are cramping, find a patch of grass or dirt (or a yoga mat) and try some “mad cat” stretches. Get on your hands and knees and alternate rounding your back upward, then arching your back, so that your pelvis gently rotates up and down.
Many athletes also like to stretch at the start of a workout as a preventative measure against cramping. In this case, warm up with 5-15 minutes of easy cardio. Then do some easy stretching to prepare your body for the workout ahead. A foam roller is also an excellent way to stretch and lengthen muscle fibers.
Progress Before You Push
Enthusiasm for sport is a good thing. But sometimes people overestimate their abilities. They go too hard or too fast (or too hard and too fast) for their current fitness. That’s an easy way to cramp up. To prevent this type of cramping, plan a reasonable progression for your training and racing program. If you have a target finish time in mind, be sure to train so that you’re prepared to perform at your goal race pace. If you’ve only ever run 10-minute miles in training, the chance you’ll suddenly be able to sustain 8-minute miles over a marathon course is slim to none.
Granted, part of being a competitor is rising to a challenge and breaking through to increasingly new levels of success. Sometimes you simply need to go for it, even if your goal is a stretch. With reward comes risk, and you may or may not achieve your goal on the first try. But you’re bound to learn more about yourself and your fitness in the process, so if you have to suffer through a few muscle cramps to understand your limits and eventually come out on top, the risk is probably worth the reward.
Have any additional muscle cramps remedies? We’re all ears. Share your best tips for muscle cramps treatments in the comments below.